Toughest job within the confines of the PGA Tour world?
Easy. Has to be working on the Tiger Woods PR campaign.
But what’s the next-toughest? How about deciding who gets those weekly sponsor exemptions?
“Brutal,” David Rauch said.
“You just don’t have enough spots to help everybody,” Michael Milthorpe said. “It’s tough, but it’s part of the job. I have to admit, though, I don’t like it.”
Tournament directors of the Waste Management Phoenix Open (Feb. 25-28) and Bob Hope Classic (Jan. 20-24), respectively, Rauch and Milthorpe confirm that dishing out the sponsor exemptions has become increasingly difficult in recent years. The reason is simple: With the talent pool getting deeper by the minute, more and more notable names are without fully-exempt status, thus are the letters arriving in record numbers.
“I’ve already got 32 (letters) on my desk,” Rauch said, “and I’ve got about four weeks until I have to act.”
By then, Rauch expects to have more than 50 letters.
The only thing is, he’s got only a handful of spots.
“And what you’ve got are a lot of quality players, guys who will play in your pro-ams, run your junior clinics, kiss the babies and do whatever you ask them,” Rauch said.
Ray Stosik (Sony Open in Hawaii, Jan. 14-17) and Milthorpe oversee the season’s first two full-field tournaments and already have gone through the anguish.
Neither man will tell you that he enjoyed it.
“You have to make decisions, and they’ll always been seen as right or wrong,” Milthorpe said. “Unfortunately, sometimes players take it personal.”
Exemptions always have been a sticky part of the task, but they’ve become increasingly tougher in recent years for a number of reasons. Obviously, the money is greater than ever, and one week can be a career-changer. With the FedEx Cup having changed the back end of the schedule, players more than ever are pushing to play earlier, so as to improve their playoff chances. Then there’s the overload of quality names who, after years of being fully exempt, are in need of sponsor exemptions.
This year, that list includes David Duval, Shaun Micheel, Rocco Mediate, Tim Herron, Chris DiMarco, Todd Hamilton, Charles Warren, Dean Wilson, Steve Elkington, Billy Mayfair, Jason Gore and John Daly.
Do you offer respect to their past support? Or do you tap into tomorrow’s talent and young players such as Rickie Fowler, Jamie Lovemark, Kyle Stanley or Ryo Ishikawa?
“It’s a balancing act,” Rauch said. “You respect the veterans, but you want to get guys on their way up (so as) to create good karma so they come back after they’ve won a few times.”
OK, so the folks at Milwaukee never saw that scenario pan out with a certain guy named Woods, but you can appreciate Rauch’s philosophy. You also can understand where certain exemptions fit into a unique landscape. Sony officials, for instance, did the admirable thing and provided three spots to players who have strong ties to Hawaii – Tadd Fujikawa, Dean Wilson and Parker McLachlin. Hope officials threw one of their spots toward Sam Saunders, whose golf credentials don’t carry the same sort of weight that his bloodlines do (he’s Arnold Palmer’s grandson), but who is going to begrudge The King?
While Sony gave the nod to Daly, Hope officials did not, and that’s a scenario that appears ready to play out all season. With Daly, there seems to be no middle of the road; either you’re with him, or not.
With exemptions seemingly a priceless commodity, Mayfair already has been given two (the Hope and Phoenix), while Herron has yet to get a positive response. Which isn’t to say he’s without options, because tentatively, Herron – who falls into the 126-150 category off last year’s money list – has entered the Monday qualifier for the Sony Open (Jan. 11).
True, that’s a long way to go to roll the dice in an 18-hole crapshoot, but hopefully the decision-makers within the PGA Tour world are taking note of Herron’s admirable efforts. He did go back to Q-School, and he is making the trip to Hawaii, so give him high marks for effort.
When he does tee it up at the Monday qualifier, Herron will be among familiar faces: Mayfair, Brad Adamonis, Mark Hensby, Spencer Levin and Frank Lickliter will be some of the PGA Tour members who’ll be taking on the challenge, too. It’s yet another indicator that times have changed, because it wasn’t that long ago when it was tough to get guys to play the Sony, never mind try and Monday-qualify for it.
Other factors that are connected to the world of sponsor exemptions:
• When it comes to gaining playing status, players who sit within the top 25 and top 50 in career money have a trump card. They can declare a one-time exemption, and annually players take advantage. In 2010, Stuart Appleby, 38, is going to ride through as a top 25 money-winner. Brad Faxon, 48, Corey Pavin, 49, and Jesper Parnevik, 44, are doing so as top 50 guys. Deciding against such a move were 39-year-old Herron (42nd), 41-year-old Chris DiMarco (22nd, but he used his top 25 a year ago), and 43-year-old Mayfair (34th).
• Working against players, too, is the tweaked AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. That used to be a fairly automatic tournament for anyone who wanted to play, but this year PGA Tour officials have trimmed 24 pros from the field, limiting it to 156. “Our (field) will be much tighter,” said AT&T tournamet director Ollie Nutt, who used to have 16 exemptions to hand out, but now will have just four. In other words, he’s getting a taste of what his fellow tournament directors have been going through for years.
• Then there’s the past-champions category that throws a wrinkle or two. It would be assumed that Duval would be in the Hope as its 1999 winner. Only there’s a 10-year ride for past champions of that event, so to get Duval in, he had to get a sponsor exemption. At the Phoenix stop, past winners get only a five-year exemption, so Rauch concedes that it puts 2004 champion Jonathan Kaye in good standing to get a coveted sponsor exemption. The good news for Herron? The Arnold Palmer Invitational still invites its winners from before 2000, so his 1999 win gets him in.